“Why architecture needs low-resolution critique” at KTH

LO-RES_KTH Arkitekturskolan_Launch event at the New KTH School of Architecture, Osquars Backe 5 in Stockholm at 18:00 on September 17. Read more

Why Architecture Needs A Low-Resolution Critique

Helen Runting

Script for LO-RES launch event at KTH School of Architecture
September 2015

The architecture of the twenty-first century operates under the hegemony of the slick, the accessible, the legible, the recombinable. Architecture, as it discussed, represented, and thought, has largely been relegated to the domain of seductive images, painfully operative diagrams, punchy catch phrases, and a cult of the personality.

High-resolution and high-visibility, the shining new buildings (whether actually built or not) of the current neoliberal economic moment promise the possibility of legibility, of readability, of direct communication in a world dulled by the affective fogs of an economic logic that is in fact lacking exactly this legibility, an economic logic that has been described by many as schizophrenic, as “mad.”[1] As Joseph Vogl comments:

“The so-called crises of recent decades have led us to ask whether what is taking place in the arenas of international finance economy is the efficient interaction of market actors or a spectacle of the purest irrationality. In any case, it remains unclear whether the much-invoked ‘spirit of capitalism’ operates reliably or simply insanely.”[2]

It is within this “insanity” (ecological, social, economic, political) that we wish to position and discuss architecture. It is the “conditions these conditions are in” which prompt us to propose that architecture needs a low-resolution critique…

Compulsive production

Fredric Jameson once proposed that postmodernism was an attempt to take the temperature of an age. If we, as architectural practitioners and theorists, were to engage in such a maneuver, how would we register the temperature of the present moment? How do we experience the present moment of capitalism? Reflecting on this question, we pose that architectural labour is experienced as simultaneously choppy and smooth, “cellularized” or “fractalized” on one hand and “connected” on the other.

In the present moment of late capitalism, the work that is architecture is spread unevenly across the waged work of the office and the unwaged spaces of everyday life (morning commute emails, the work-related “after work” drink, “soft cadding” on weekends, the eponymous “café-office”/coffice/boffice), the connection of which is facilitated by the technological infrastructures of interface (phones and screens certainly, but also magazines and media). The discrete tasks of architectural labor are not only divided up, as in the production lines of the twentieth century (a process which has famously been critiqued for concealing the product from view), but they have also become radically indiscernible—the entire process of production has itself now disappeared. It is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between consumption and production, between life and production, between sleep and production. A productive spirit (in its various guises called collaboration, entrepreneurship, or the social) reigns, and in the midst of all of our various discrete, choppy, and fragmented “projects,” it is oddly difficult to know when we are working, and for whom.

As Franco “Bifo” Berardi writes, within semiocapitalism, “cells of productive time can be mobilized in punctual, casual, and fragmentary forms. The recombination of these fragments is automatically realized in the network.” Work, just like its immediate products, is thus chopped up, packaged, sold, and re-used. He continues:

“From the point of view of the valorization of capital, flow is continuous, but from the point of view of the existence and time of cognitive workers, productive activity has the character of recombinant fragmentation in cellular form.”[3]

 Compatibility

In service of this compulsively productive biopolitical economy, or perhaps just as a reflection of its spirit, contemporary architectural discourse is equally cellularized, delivering a smooth flow of equally choppy bits—the architectural press is full of juicy images, witty sound bites, academico-corporate best practice, and well-crafted architectural self-promotion.

The smoothness of the mode of delivery, of the format, in fact works to conceal the discontinuities of the content.

In the academic press, this plays out in rigid writing conventions, uncompromising grids, endless peer-review processes undertaken in order to win indexing status and continuity, in compulsive requirements to express one’s “scientific ambitions” (“Where is the evidence?”) or to flaunt one’s credentials in hipness. In the popular and professional press, the flow of images is insatiable, and the number of faces – always in black and white, often white, often male – overflows onto the streets of cities. Advertising copies magazines copying advertising. We all begin to look like we belong on an ad for Apple. Everything is smooth:

“Reducers of complexity such as money, information, stereotypes, or digital network interfaces have simplified the relationship with the other, but when the other appears in flesh and blood, we cannot tolerate its presence, because it hurts our (in)sensibility. The video-electronic generation does not tolerate armpit or pubic hair. One needs perfect compatibility in order to interface corporeal surfaces in connection. Smooth generation.”[4] 

As feminist architectural theorist Katherine Shonfield pointed out, joining disparate things requires the various components to be compatible, to be “tolerant”:

“A harsh or rigorous form of construction cannot vary to allow the presence of other components. Just like a party: two people get into a conversation, and it becomes clear that, come what may, each is going to maintain their opinions, and the one person cannot be affected in any way by the other. If you are the host, this puts you under enormous strain. You have to accommodate both persons. You have to be almost infinitely flexible, capable of being pulled from one side and the other without snapping.”[5]

And so the architectural discourse instills the necessary view of a slick, continuous, smooth, and stimulating whole; of formatting the chunks of that process as compatible, combinable, as tolerant with respect to each other. Architectural media plays the role of a tolerant host.

The entrepreneurial self

Fragmentation and repetition renders architecture’s operations both invisible and personal.

Undertaking choppy tasks, a precarious workforce is not only forced into a precarious labor politics, but also routines of repetitive copying, of recombining and recycling the labor of others. Short on time, confidence and the privileged room to experiment, architects flagrantly copy from magazines. This is repetition in the sense of “going through the motions.” In being done (being performed, over and over again), such operations are incorporated as habit, or doxa. As Wendy Brown puts it:

“The model neoliberal citizen is one who strategizes for her- or himself among various social, political, and economic options, not one who strives with others to alter or organize these options.”[6]

A low-resolution agenda

One. Criticality has never been “tolerant” and it certainly doesn’t play off the register of “compatibility” or clear communication. In its ambiguity, though, it demands that both sides change, rather than playing the aim of the “infinitely flexible” host.

Two. The invisible, the unthought, needs to be illuminated, in order that it can be perceived as part of an external system and not a failure of oneself.

Three. Further, variation of the radical kind in the conditions of today’s capitalism is a matter, perhaps then—we wager—of introducing radical modulations into the underlying tone, of operating on a level that repeats in discordant terms.

Four. The only thing worth changing are the structures that produce the possibility of that self, architecture being one of them.

Five. Noise, unexplainable echoes, discordant clashes, distortion, and ambiguity are not problems but aims.

Sweden occupies an interesting moment right now. It is poised on the edge of systemic mutations of the darker kind. Architecture is complicit in the dismantling of the state, of the industry of architecture, of its institutions and its own media. Architecture is complicit in the production of a neoliberal architecture of habit, repetitive error, internalized potential, and infinite “flexibility” of the kind that means accepting the subjugating conditions of the present (for ourselves and, importantly, for others).

A plunge into the lower registers might not change these things. A wholesale shift in practice, however, introducing discordant variations on all of those repetitions, might. We need more magazines, more projects, more architects, more architecture, not less. More copying is fine too. Such a move has definitely been done before. But, perhaps, not exactly like this.

NOTES

[1]. “Everything is rational in capitalism, except capital or capitalism itself. The stock market is certainly rational; one can understand it, study it, the capitalists know how to use it, and yet it is completely delirious, it’s mad.” Gilles Deleuze in Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, ‘Capitalism: A Very Special Delirium,’ ed. Sylvere Lothringer, Chaosophy (Los Angeles: Autonomedia/Semiotexte 1995), n.p.

[2]. Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capitalism (California: Stanford University Press, 2015), ix.

[3]. Franco (Bifo) Berardi, eds. Gary Genosko & Nicholas Thoburn, After the Future (Oakland: AK Press, 2011), n.p.

[4]. Ibid., 68.

[5]. Katherine Shonfield, Walls Have Feelings: Architecture, Film and the City (London: Routledge, 2000), 40.

[6]. Wendy Brown, ‘Neoliberalism and the End of Democracy,’ in Edgework (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 2005), 43.

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